From the creators of “Project Runway” comes the latest fashion competition series. With a new Emmy Award in hand, Tim Gunn takes the reigns as host of Lifetime’s “Under the Gunn,” which premiered January 16.
In this behind-the-scenes esque spin-off, America’s favorite mentor, Gunn, passes the torch to PR alumni, “Project Runway” season 8 runner-up and “Project Runway: All-Stars” season 1 winner Mondo Guerra, season 9 winner Anya Ayoung-Chee and season 2 contestant Nick Verreos, who have shown their prowess on the runway as contestants, but now must prove they have the vision and business savvy to mentor and manage a fashion empire with 15 new up-and coming designers under their watch.
The twist: Each mentor will have a team of four designers they must manage, coach, cheerlead and - when necessary - knock down with tough love in order to lead them to runway success.
The designers and mentors must prove to esteemed panel of judges Rachel Roy, celebrity stylist Jen Rade, and TV fashion correspondent and Marie Claire Senior Fashion Editor Zanna Roberts Rassi that they can “make it work.” A surfeit of celebrity guest judges this season include Heidi Klum, Neil Patrick Harris and Macklemore.
SFGN talked at length with the “Godfather of Fashion,” Tim Gunn, to discuss his role on the show, what it means to him both personally and professionally, and the future of “Project Runway.”
How did the concept for this show come about?
I'm nothing if not transparent about everything and I will be really honest with you. When we were conducting auditions, it was for “Project Runway” season 13, it was not for “Under the Gunn.”
At the time we were conducting the auditions, UTG didn't even exist. Lifetime's plan was to do season 13 immediately following the finale of season 12 but Heidi wasn’t available. Heidi and I have a pact, which is we won't do the show without the other. So, there was a scramble and this whole new concept was born. The designers who were preliminarily selected for Runway, we went back to them and said, “you know, it's a new show. If you want to back out and wait for Runway you can.” No one did. Everybody wanted to come to UTG. I was pleased with that.
Did you miss Heidi on the production of this one?
Of course. I missed her deeply and dearly. She was a judge for our finale. So, she came and said “I just want to show support. I wish we could have done Runway again or wish I could have been here more.”
Her conflict was that she was taping “Germany's Next Top Model” and that's like Runway for her; it's a 24-hour a day job. I did miss her very much but she was constantly in my head.
And I will say this, I sit with the judges on UTG through the whole process and that’s why I really am Big Daddy. Boy, I thanked my lucky stars sitting there that I wasn’t a judge. I thought, ‘I don’t know how she does it; I just don’t.’ It's enough to have to facilitate the conversation among the judges but to also be a full blown participant in it? I felt physically lighter for not having to have that role.
How you select designers for the show? Do you have your eye on diversity or do you reach out to those people who maybe wouldn’t have the advantage or the ability to maybe break in to the industry otherwise?
Yes, we're always looking for diversity. Diversity in points of view, diversity in background, and – I will say this - you never know how a designer's really going to perform until they're on the show.
In the first episode, you see that we present them with a challenge in the workroom, which is something we have never done. That was so the mentors could really get a much stronger idea of how these designers would perform given the demands that we put on them.
After so many years of doing the show, do you still continue to be impressed with the fashion talents? Are there still things that they can come up with that just shock and dazzle you?
Well, I don’t know that I will say “shock” but I will say “dazzle.” I think I've been un-shockable since the 1960s.
But, yes, certainly, what dazzles me is what the designers are able to achieve in this incredibly tight time frame. It's quite remarkable, which is why when the judges start getting testy and overly critical about some matters, I really get my back up because I want to say to them, "You try it."
How were the mentors chosen? Of all the contestants you've had over the years, how were these three picked?
You know, it was hard. I'm not going to be coy about it. We know everybody loves Mondo, and Mondo was eager to do this. Anya presents such a different personality and in some ways a different take on fashion. I want you to know, there were dozens of people who were on the table and there were dozens who were approached. We were also looking for diversity among this group.
I will share with you, though, that I am particular on Nick Verreos, largely because he has a decade's worth of teaching behind him. While I know I said earlier there is a difference, it certainly does help though if you have the teaching background; it just does. You are used to managing a classroom and in some ways, metaphorically speaking, a work room is a kind of classroom. I became very active in recruiting Nick.
What makes a good mentor?
From my point of departure, a good mentor is a coach, a cheerleader, a truth teller. My own particular approach is to pummel people with questions. I need as much of a context as possible to understand what their point of departure is and what they are trying to achieve.
I would never just walk up to someone and start speaking and offering critical analysis of their work without fully understanding, or understanding as well as I can, what that designer is really trying to achieve. Those are elements that I believe are important. I found that out quickly when I began Runway almost 10 years ago. I noticed quickly how different mentoring is from teaching. When you are teaching, you can tell people what to do. And when you are mentoring, that is not a good idea. You really want the designer to be fully responsible for tier decision-making.
Did you miss the opportunity of being the mentor on this series or was it a relief?
It's a little bit of both. I was very envious of the fact that the mentors have full access to the designers after that first critique including the fitting and I never have access to that fitting on Runway; there are just too many designers and there is only one of me.
However, it was also interesting because the mentors can be my truth tellers about what really happens during these fittings because I would always ask the Runway designers, “How did the fitting go? Oh, it was great?" Then I see the work on the model on the runway and I think, "What was so great about it?"
Mentors were just as delusional. I would ask them, "How did it go?” They’d say, “It was fantastic." Then I see the runway look and I think, "Really?" I told them, "You have got this incredible opportunity for the designer to have you present for this fitting. You've got to keep your critical analytical abilities as sharply honed as possible."
One thing that was rumored over a couple of years - and I know a lot of people would love to see - is more menswear. Is there going to be a menswear challenge on “Under the Gunn” or will there be a season of “Project Runway”that's only menswear?
Have you ever seen worse work than our menswear challenges ever? [Laughs] I haven’t. There was talk at one point about a menswear season. I said, “Great, we will have six people show up for the auditions.” There is another dimension that this, is if we were to do that, and frankly I would be very interested in it, but if that we were to do it, there is no way we could use the same time constraints. We’d have to at least double the amount of time - because at the core of any good menswear is tailoring and it just takes time.
We actually have a menswear designer on the show this season and you will see what happens with designer's work; it's interesting. We don't have any menswear challenge in this season. I would have completely freaked out and said, "Are we crazy? We know this is going to be bad."
How did it feel stepping out of the direct mentor position and into the host position?
It wasn’t easy, to be perfectly honest. I'm trying to think of how to describe this, because this is really the first opportunity that I've had to talk about what it was like doing the show.
On the one hand, I had to have a thousand percent of my brain wrapped around this. On the other hand, I had to step back metaphorically speaking and be more of the facilitator. I called myself “Big Daddy” during the show. It was different, and I enjoy this but I'm just happy that we still have Runway because I get to go back to that role. It was more difficult than it used to but in the end I loved it.
What was the best and most difficult part about having your own show?
The best part and the most difficult part are the same. Saying that I have my own show; it sends terror through me, to be perfectly honest. On the one hand, I'm actually thrilled about it. On the other hand, I feel very exposed and I'm nervous about how people are going to respond to it.
I feel that when critical barbs are thrown, and I'm sure they will be, I'm the full target. There is
no one to bob and weave around or to share it with. So I feel very exposed.
You'll see some dimensions of me that you don’t see on Runway — especially my temper. I hope people just recognize that I'm a real person and some things can really push my buttons. People constantly come up to me on the street and say, "You're such a lovely man. You're always so even-keeled." And suddenly, it's like, “well, guess what?” But you know, it's humanizing and I always think that that’s a good thing.
What did you observe to be the biggest challenges that the mentors faced? Did they come to the mentor position easily or were there some things that you had to sort of step in and say like, “That’s really not your job” or “This is your job?”
There were many times I had to step in, including at one point laying down some rules. One of the first rules I needed to lay down was that mentors had to leave the workroom an hour before I call time to go to the runway, because they were becoming these irrepressible nags. They would be hanging over their designers saying, "Don’t work on that, work on the collar." I was like, “Get out of here. The designers need to stop hearing your voices.”
It's really difficult and there is such a delicate balance here between offering too much and offering not enough. Though I have to say this too - and I said this to the editing team at Bunim/Murray, who are doing the slicing and dicing and I said it in response to some feedback that they gave me about how they were envisioning this editing - was the following. “The mentors are not jockeys and the designers are not horses. It's not a matter of getting on a horse and saying ‘Giddy up’ and ‘Go faster,’ and patting their rear ends and saying, ‘Let's get to the finish line right now.’” The designer and the mentor are two completely separate entities. And the editing team was trying to make this correlation between a designer's success and a mentor's good mentoring - and correspondingly, a designer's failure and therefore it's the mentor's failure.
I kept saying, "You can't look at it that way." That’s why I always use the refrain “I can't want you to succeed more than you do.” I had to pull Nick off of the designer once to say, "Let her go. This is now beyond the pale. Unless you are resigned to make her work, which I will allow you to do, there's nothing else you can do.” His response was, "Well, I feel bad." And I said, "I understand that but it's not your failure." So it's a delicate balance.
How did you learn that?
Trial and error. I learned quickly on Runway that if I'm too assertive about my own point of view, about where I believe this design should go, then whose work is it? Is it collaboration between the designer and me? That’s not good. I never want a designer to think, "I should never listen to Tim."
I'm always reminding the designers on Runway and the mentors on “Under the Gunn,” you are not making decisions for these individuals. You cannot.
What do you hope you will find in terms of a fashion designer that’s going to fill a void that we currently have?
You know, I have to tell you, I really come to this completely and totally unencumbered. I want to be wowed and dazzled but I really don’t know what that is. This is such a conundrum of sorts. I would say to my students, “the two easiest things to do are to create dumb clothes and make jokes.” Dumb clothes for me, is a T-shirt; the world doesn’t need you to make a T-shirt. There are plenty of them out there. And jokes for me are those things that we see walking the runway during a Paris Couture Week.
Those two polarities are so easy to design for. Yes, it's easy to make a T-shirt. It’s easy to make a float in the parade but to make real clothes that are innovative and believable is a huge challenge, and it's why when people do it well, the world cheers.
Most of what's out there is not very innovative. I'm always making the distinction between clothes and fashion. We need clothes; we don’t need fashion. We want fashion and we have fervor for it but we don’t need it. When it comes to fashion, we want something new, we want something that lifts us just a couple of inches off the ground spiritually.
Who: Tim Gunn
What: Under the Gunn
When/Where: Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on Lifetime
To read the full interview visit SFGN.com/UnderTheGunn